Don’t be fooled by the freshly scrubbed floors, potted, tropical-looking plants and lively Latin music at Jeremy Merrin’s newest restaurant, located at 2911 Broadway, across from Columbia University.
This is, in fact, Jack Kerouac’s favorite New York dive bar. At least, it used to be.
Though, initially, you’d be hard-pressed to figure that out. The exterior signage beams “Havana Central” in radiant neon, while the venue’s historic title, “The West End,” appears in black, at about half the size.
The site of Mr. Merrin’s new hybrid brand, Havana Central at the West End, remains a nearly century-old Morningside Heights landmark, mostly for its connection to Beat writers like Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs—a past (and now decades-old marketing tool) that the new proprietor plans to use.
Starting foremost with a grand reopening this Friday, which marks the end of a drastic six-month, $2.5 million face-lifting and identity-altering makeover of what locals stubbornly still call “The West End.”
While Mr. Merrin’s two other Havana Central locations in Manhattan occupy far less venerable spaces, the emergence of his growing Cuban-themed restaurant chain isn’t entirely unwelcome on a block already occupied by formula retailers Aerosole and Häagen Dazs. In fact, Mr. Merrin characterized the hallowed venue’s striking overhaul as carrying on with tradition.
“The West End has changed hands a number of times and each owner has contributed to its ongoing evolution, but, essentially, they have all acted as caretakers of the legacy of what has become a New York institution,” Mr. Merrin said in a written statement. “As the latest in that succession I take my responsibility very seriously, which is why Havana Central at The West End will embrace a ‘burgers and beer sensibility’ along with a commitment to an authentic Cuban dining experience.”
The burgers, careful readers will note, are on the back of the menu.
It’s the first time in six decades that any owner has so significantly and pre-emptively altered the eatery’s hallowed name, which former owner Sid Roberts’ father bestowed upon the place in 1946, around the time it was first establishing its bebop-era cred.
Mr. Merrin, a former jeweler whose family once ran Merrin Jewelers, is a lifelong resident of the Upper West Side and a Columbia alum—in business, not English nor history. So he deserves at least some credit for trying to temper this corporate chain-store takeover with a sprinkling of historic preservation.
As part of Friday’s festivities, frequenters of the former West End are invited to come share their memories of the way the place used to be, as part of an ongoing oral-history project. You know, for the sake of posterity.
As a reward for their video-recorded statements, participants will receive a platter of complimentary empanadas.
Mr. Roberts, the former owner who sold the place in 1977, is slated to be among the first speakers. In keeping with the event’s historic-preservation shtick, management plans to unveil a commemorative plaque, dedicating Mr. Roberts’ favorite booth, in a private ceremony early in the evening.
It’s a far better fate than that afforded the Beats’ old corner booth, once located in the back of the restaurant. That, according to one employee, was dismantled during recent renovations to make way for new tables.
Framed black-and-white photos of such famous former West End frequenters as Kerouac and jazz great Dizzy Gillespie, however, are slated for hanging in coming weeks upon the freshly touched-up walls.
At least one employee queried by Counter Espionage approved of Mr. Merrin’s sweeping changes to the place. Julie, a bartender, who claimed to have also worked under previous ownership, described the venue’s new incarnation as “a lot cleaner” and “better overall” than its prior state of affairs.
Mr. Merrin has further pledged to reinstate an old West End tradition that some owners seemed to have forgotten: live music, including a jazz band during Sunday brunch.
Those Beats, you know—big brunchers.